new zealand electronic poetry centre



The Third Space Of Translation, Or Translation And The Third Text : On Being Translated

Michael Harlow


Text of a talk presented 23 April 2006 at BLUFF 06, Te Rau Aroha Marae, Southland.


translation and the third text

Let me say straight off, that I’m not speaking as a professional translator (not even a very adept one, I think); rather as a writer-poet and probably fanatical reader, with a fairly long history of being engaged with other languages and the cultures of other languages, and sometimes – mostly in collaboration – translating the work of other poets. In the brief time allotted, I’d like to make some suggestions about translation, which I hope may be at least provocative enough to have some kind of afterlife of inquisitiveness; a kind of sketch-talk or un croquis, if you like (esquisser faire un croquis)...

The remarks I’m going to make about ‘Translation and the Third Space’, or ‘Translation as the Third Text’ rest on – in this instance – three significant aspects of the nature and practice of language itself as the defining, creative paradigm of human identity and relationship (reordberend = speechbearer = human being). Language in a ‘condition of special use’; in this case, literature, and particularly translation. Firstly : instinct to language is its drive, its desire to be always seeking relationship, to itself and ‘the other’ or others; from the one-word sentence to the sentence to extended speech, what I’m calling for the moment, a ‘syntax of meaning’. Secondly : the degree and acuity with which the translator and the writer listen for and to the ‘unconscious’ and its plethora of ‘shadow-texts’ is vital to the translation as ‘original repetition’. Thirdly : that naturally every word has a long and deep history and that matters significantly not only to the original composition but especially, I think, to the translation-as-third text.

So it is then: no translation – or any text for that matter – is innocent of the deep history of its words, and the culture of its languages. When we use words and work at taking them into another language – a ‘trans-lation’, we ‘wake into resonance their entire history’ (George Steiner, After Babel).   It matters indeed that every word has a long and deep history: its etymology (cf.   etymos + ologos = truth-telling), that is to say the unconscious of language; and an echo from Lacan when he says ‘L’inconscient est comme langage’.

And on this track, I’m mindful of the story – anecdotal perhaps apocryphal but to the point here – of the painter Degas who was very keen to be something of a poet and make the best sonnets he could; and in his frustration at not succeeding, complained to his friend and symbolist poet, Mallarmé: that he couldn’t understand why it was with his passion for all these great ideas, that he was having so much difficulty wrestling them into poetic/sonnet shape. To which Mallarmé replied: my dear friend, sonnets aren’t made from ideas, they’re made from Words, Degas – Words. And you know: words don’t do well in loneliness; they don’t like to dwell in the solitude of themselves (and who can blame them?).   ‘A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.’ That’s the poet Emily Dickinson responding I think to the sorrow that the dark side of silence can be. One of the primary or essential desires in any language act of ‘trans-animation’, as in trans-lation, is I think that of breaking the silence and silences of one text in its singular language hold – opening it to the interpretative imagination of the other. All texts have secrecies or ‘shadow-texts’ in waiting.   Translation because it is ‘anima-driven’ – that is, making the ‘newly-old, new’, breathing new life into, as it were – seems eminently suitable and able for this kind of alchemic experience.

            What is the source of our first suffering?
            It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak...
            It was born in the moment when we accumulated
            silent things in us.
                                                    (that fine poet-philosopher, Gaston Bachelard)

I’m thinking about ‘translation’ then, as language-in-relationship; a dialogue that through use defines itself and its users. ‘Wir sind ein Geschöpf der Sprache’: We are a creature of language, and a creation of it. (In Wittgenstein, an echoic affirmation: ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world’.) And of course, one of these uses, in a sense language in a condition of special use, is translation.

So – I’d like to suggest a notion of translation as what I will call for the moment, a ‘trans-relational’ liaison; one kind of getting together in the project of making the ‘newly-old, new’. A relationship between the original (or ur-text) and its ‘shadow-texts’, and all the texts similarly available to the translator: out of which emerges the ‘third-or-other text’ (the third space). By ‘shadow-texts’, I mean the ‘invisible’ but always unconsciously present possible texts available to any writer/translator; those texts-in-waiting always it seems putting pressure on the consciousness of the writer, and of course the translator who is also, at our most optimistic wish, a writer herself. (I’m really talking here about the unconscious as a deep and rich source of textual language). Every writer, artist knows he or she is not always, or never in absolute control of what they are composing-writing.

The new or third-text then, as the afterlife of the original and its ‘invisibles’, constellated through the language experience of the translator, and through the ‘engagement of his or her own identity’ as interprète/interpreter. It is a kind of ‘original repetition’. And a dialogue, intra-and-inter-lingual, in each case animated and shaped by the individual and idiosyncratic curves of their respective imaginations.

And of course, the degree to which the realisation of the translation is more than just competent or just ‘good enough’ rests significantly on the nature of the role and practice of the translator. The translator I have in mind is one who is an interpreter, and in some sense a performer, perhaps even a writer. One who is not only a skilful and conscientious and accurate enough reproducer and transcriber of the original (not too much, I hope), a faithful ventriliquo; but is also one who interprets, makes an interpretation: ‘that which gives language life beyond the moment and place of immediate utterance or transcription’ (Steiner). Keeping in mind indeed that ‘information’ and its transmission, however necessary and useful, is clearly not enough; too exclusively on its own and we get a language emptied of its imaginative life, lacking anima, if you will.

A translator who listens for the ‘invisibles’ as well as the visible and apparent (it’s possible); one, who as interprète and writer works within a twofold realisation that is ‘at the same time reproductive and innovative’. And I can recall here that very influential and persuasive modernist declaration by Ezra Pound to ‘make it new’, and who in his raids on the archaic was in fact very busy making the ‘old, new’ – so that literature is, as he says, news that stays news.


the third space of translation

Central to the idea of ‘Translation as the Third Space’ is that of the translator-as-interpreter, or interprète (and I’m relying again on the critic George Steiner here). The French term, as I understand it, interprète, is closer to the point, covers more ground I think, and has a deeper reach than that of the English term, ‘interpreter’. A useful analogy by way of differentiation is that of musical performance, in which ‘every musical realisation is a new poiesis (or poetry ."making")... It differs from all other performances of the same composition.’ And in which, for example, a pianist gives ‘une interprétation’ of a Beethoven Sonata; or as in dramatic production an ‘actor is interprète of Racine’ (Steiner)

This translator who has an eye and an ear, especially (since the ‘ear’ is the foremost ‘true’ writer), who can hear the sound a sentence or line of verse makes beyond the surface tonalities of the text – that deep hole behind words that Octavio Paz speaks about, where we need to listen for the unconscious of what is being said – a kind of ‘listening imagination’ – by taking risks with what we hear, and imagine. One who also knows that if we hear in translation too insistently the voice and manner of the translator, that threatens to dominate and overwhelm the other possible voices of the original, we are hearing (too ego-driven) at least a disabled translation. The translator who realises that it’s not really a matter of transmitting an ‘understanding’, so much as it is making possibilities for understanding – on the strength, let’s say, of ‘being capable of uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’, what Keats called ‘negative capability’. The translator who is willing and can imagine when to ‘stray’ from the original (and it’s a delicate call), and push against the boundaries of those moments when little is being said when it is meant to mean more; who is alert to the semantics of silence and space, when the language seems to leap away, or fade, or shift to another plane of possible meaning; who understands when something is being withheld from the reader and knows when to leave it alone....

And finally, since the clock is already striking thirteen, the translator-interprète: who may or may not understand, but who knows ‘since feeling is first’ that poetry ought to be able to resist the intelligence, almost successfully (a gloss from Wallace Stevens).


on being translated

If one is going to ‘be translated, then of course it is the deep wish of every writer to have the most intelligent, feeling and enthusiastic reader-translator possible. I’m talking about a relationship: a kind of dialogue; a meeting ground of two writers, two texts, in search of a new text – making the ‘newly-old, new’. The translator as ‘writerly-reader’.

I’ve been fortunate recently in working with Jean Anderson (at Victoria University, and who has translated a number of New Zealand and French writers) on a book of mine called INVENTING THE REAL (which come to think of it, happenstance, it’s not at all a bad title for the translation process itself). We’ve been working en face, as it were, side-by-side so that everything is in the present – more on which shortly. The great good fortune it is then in a translator to have such a writerly-reader. It has been and is for me the experience of being involved in a process of ‘original repetition’: that is being faithful and accurate enough to the original, but also being ‘innovative’ in creating a third-or-‘other’-text. And I must say in a number of instances it has resulted in some distinct ‘improvements’ on the original! As such, for me it becomes or can be translation as, ‘trans-animation’. Let me give a brief example/illustration to show what I mean:

We were working together as we do, en face, on a poem called ‘Magic Man’ (L’homme magique): not an easy poem to get hold of I’m sure: in which rather strange and curious things happen as this traveling magician-trickster comes to town and puts on a show of sleight-of-hand (legerdemain); which is really about in some sense the surreal of the everyday, is also about ‘inventing the real’ – one kind of metaphor I think of the re-animating power of the imaginal to see and feel anew... And so, we came to the lines early on in the poem:

                        out of air his hands snatch birds,
                        willy-whistles from nowhere rise
                        and fall, how his pockets flutter

                        rippling secret names, yours
                        and mine....

Well – ‘willy-whistles’ (a neo-logism as far as I know) is a problematic word and in the context of the poem, phonic and visual, complex. We read it over and aloud, pondered it and explored it, searching for some kind of approximate equivalent...without sacrificing any of the sound or tonal values... And Jean, well into the ‘spirit’ and ambience of the poem, provoked undoubtedly by the patterning of the language and its associational fluence came up with what you could call an associational-memoir of watching some ‘fireflies’ a few years ago, thus: feux follets – which seemed to me not only ‘right’ and innovatively ‘just’ but which in fact gave me an entirely new line, and an opening to think about the poem again in a direction (and some subsequent other revisions), that opened the poem to additional possible meanings.

Finally, and very briefly: I had occasion to come back, really only out of curiosity, and query ‘feux follets’, only because I couldn’t find it in any of my lexicons. Jean persevering as ever and equally curious, discovered in fact that ‘feux follets’ seems to be (contra ‘fireflies’), ‘will-o’ the wisps’ (ignis fatuus; ‘ball of wild fire’; ‘walking fire’; electrical phenomenon).

There it is: from ‘willy-whistles’ to ‘feux follets’ to ‘fireflies’ and lurking there all the while, the phonic and associational drift from ‘will-o’ the wisps’ at the unconscious level and its ‘sound’ link to the original ‘willy-whistles’. Very interesting. In any case, ‘feux follets’ and ‘fireflies’ it is for some of the reasons cited above, but how it came about is I think just one example of ‘being translated’, working with a translator who is deep reader, and writer, and interprète as well as a ‘trans-scriptor’ of regard.




Last updated 20 July, 2006